ST. LOUIS — Opponents of a proposal banning most affirmative action programs in Missouri are trying to discourage people from signing an initiative petition to get it on the 2008 ballot.
The Missouri Civil Rights Initiative is collecting signatures to get a measure on the ballot that would “ban state and local government affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment in public contracting, employment or education based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.”
Those opposed to the measure have organized in a group called Working to Empower Community Action Now, or We Can. The group is concerned that people, hearing they’re signing a petition related to civil rights, will not know the ramifications of what they’re supporting, said Director Brandon Davis. He argues the measure would set back race and gender relations.
“This isn’t about civil rights. It’s about banning affirmative action,” he said. Affirmative action remains important because “we don’t, as a society, have a level playing field yet.”
Opponents have set up a hot line that people can call if they see someone collecting signatures for the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative. We Can officials then send out a volunteer to the same site to distribute information asking people to “think before they ink” their signature to the petition.
We Can also is holding town-hall style meetings in Missouri, where labor leaders, business people and academics opposed to the measure voice their concerns.
The Missouri Civil Rights Initiative needs to collect about 140,000 to 150,000 signatures by May 4 to get its measure on the November ballot. The signatures must be collected in six of nine congressional districts in the state and need to be equal to 8 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election.
The executive director of the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative, Tim Asher, said his group doesn’t have a problem with We Can trying to get out its viewpoint.
He said the proposal is intended to end the use of what he called racial and gender preferences in public contracting, employment and education, unless they’re tied to programs necessary to be eligible for federal funding or to comply with an existing court order.
“We believe it is discrimination and should not be occurring in our state and in our country as well,” he said.
Legal wrangling continues in Missouri over the way the proposed ballot measure has been summarized for voters, but Asher said his group is moving forward with collecting signatures.
Missouri is one of five states where affirmative action critic Ward Connerly and his supporters are pursuing ballot initiatives this year. The other states are Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska. Measures similar to what’s being proposed in Missouri already passed in California in 1996, in Washington in 1998 and in Michigan in 2006, he said.
Davis was critical of the non-Missouri involvement in the initiative.
“You’ve got monied, out-of-state interests coming in and tinkering with our state constitution,” he said.
Asher said Connerly and his supporters got involved in Missouri because he asked them to do so. He said approving the measure would take the emphasis off “how different we all are” and improve equal access.